SHREWSBURY — Seventeen kindergartners and first-graders eagerly scurried into the snowy banks behind Shrewsbury Mountain School to their special “sit” places for quiet time last Thursday.
“They all have a spot that they choose at the beginning of the year,” said Julia Bonafine, leader of the outdoor classroom and k-2 teacher. “They sit and observe, and watch the seasons change, and get to know that spot really well.”
For 15 silent minutes, the children gazed into the trees from their respective snowy perches. Then, Bonafine raised a small medicine drum to summon them back to their huddle around a glowing fire, where they sipped lemon balm tea made with herbs from their garden.
“Let’s talk about what we see, what we think and what we wonder,” Bonafine said.
As part of the Mill River Unified Union School District’s Trailhead 2020, officials at Shrewsbury Mountain School decided to specialize in sustainability, teaching their 71 students the rippling impact of choice.
“Shrewsbury is a really positive, collective, interconnected community,” said Principal Jodie Ruck. “We want to teach the students how to be better stewards of our environment, and our community basics for understanding all of these larger systems.”
The little school is hidden away on a long, winding road into the mountains, away from the bustle of Rutland. Students build their own wooden forts and plant evergreen trees along the banks of the school grounds where they noticed the earth beginning to erode.
“We want them to be global change makers,” Ruck said. “But one of the keys to that is having them fall in love with where they are. ... It’s called place-based education.”
Though Shrewsbury Mountain School has always had an underlying ecological mission, Trailhead 2020 has brought together their respective environmental projects with the community garden and local farmers under one umbrella, Ruck said.
“They’re going to have to be involved citizens,” Ruck said. “They’ll need to be problem solvers. Those are the qualities we’re helping kids develop with this kind of work. They’re going to face a world that’s so much different than the one we’re in now.”
This year, the school launched a collaboration with Shelburne Farms, which will help the school design a rain garden and teach them about water conservation.
And, though the students have been harvesting food from the community garden for years, the school launched Harvest of the Month in the fall, highlighting one special fruit or vegetable the students in kindergarten through fourth grade can pick themselves. Students learn about the nutrients, ways to cook it, and share the delicious results with their peers.
“October was chard,” Ruck said. “They used the leaf to make quiche and made maple syrup, vinegar, sriracha pickles out of the stems ... then they came to the school board meeting and let the board members try it.”
Ruck said her staff say they hope to do more educational training at Shelburne Farms and began work with a group of volunteers, parents and other community members once a month to create a local resource database for the area’s various farms and businesses to help develop the school into a community-based educational center.
The school is already establishing partnerships with the town conservation commission and historical society, and will be surveyed to create a second outdoor classroom, affording students more time for wilderness-based education.
“If the kids aren’t learning inside, we try to keep them as active as possible,” Ruck said. “We wanted to figure out how can we make school epic, how can we give our students, regardless of any other factor, any of the things that kids in private school have. We want to make it a place kids are excited to go to. And make adults want to do it over again.”
When it’s time to be quiet, not a sound can be heard in the halls, as each student has curled up with a Dorothy Canfield Fisher book or a laptop in cushioned chairs, underneath desks or in a favorite corner.
The students in Sabrina McDonough’s fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms are entering their third year raising trout to release into local watersheds, and are reading “A World Without Fish” to better understand how to preserve their local freshwater sources.
“We’re hoping to do a baseline so we can look at the health of the streams over time,” McDonough said.
Erin Rice’s kindergarten, first- and second-grade English Language Arts classes are tying ecology into their reading in their “Thirsty Planet” series about water conservation.
“It helps them do their part and make a difference,” Rice said. “If they feel engaged in what they’re doing, and they feel it’s important, and they have a hand in that, they’re willing learners. They’ll soak up anything you’re willing to teach them.”
“It’s part of space-based learning,” Ruck added. “It’s the interconnection — connecting all of the subjects to the things we already know. ... It’s students doing hands-on activities and being able to work at individualized levels lends itself to students receiving what they need, when they need it.”
“I like learning about things that have happened in the past,” said 9-year-old Cabot Spatz. “I want to be somebody who helps with problems in the world.”
In her first year, Ruck said their strategy to fully implement Trailhead 2020 is evaluating resources and reaching within for support.
“Part of sustainability is realizing you have what you need,” Ruck said. “I have amazing teachers and an involved community. What I want is more access to scientific instruments, training for teachers and finances for field work, but I have everything I need.”
NORTH CHITTENDEN — It’s been many days since thousands of federal workers were placed on furlough owing to a partial government shutdown, but someone still has to feed the fish.
One of those someones is Henry Bouchard, hatchery manager for the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery on Holden Road.
“We have a permanent staff of five and one intermittent employee,” Bouchard said last Thursday, while at the facility. “Two of the staff are considered essential, everyone else is on furlough.”
He and the hatchery assistant manager are the two deemed essential by the federal government.
“The marching orders are to come in, do essential stuff to keep the animals healthy and safe, then go home,” said Bouchard.
He said staff came in the day after Christmas to sign furlough agreements and go through shutdown procedures.
“We have maintenance staff, we have administrative staff, and other biologists that take care of fish,” Bouchard said.
The facility operates 365 days per year, Bouchard said. It raises salmon, lake trout and brook trout. The salmon are destined for Lake Champlain, the lake trout for the Great Lakes, and the brook trout for waters throughout Vermont.
“Right now, me and the other fellow, we rotate two days at a time,” he said. “We get a break, but it’s not real sustainable for the long term.”
The work they’re doing is limited to keeping the fish healthy and alive, he said. The facility isn’t gaining on maintenance and upkeep.
There are two projects at the facility that were almost complete but halted because of the shutdown, Bouchard said. One is a drainage pipe for one of the fish culture stations, the other is new office space the staff were hoping to move into.
The facility has 350,000 fish right now, with 400,000 fish eggs.
“When we’re going to open I have no idea. The closer we get to spring, the harder it’s going to be,” he said. “I don’t envision this thing going on forever, but another couple weeks it’s going to be problematic.”
Bouchard has been through government shutdowns before. He said staff were given paperwork to file for unemployment benefits. Some people file, others don’t, he said. He himself has never done so, but acknowledged that it gets tough when the paychecks stop.
Bouchard is also the manager of White River Fish Hatchery in Bethel, as well as one in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts. He said those places are under similar shutdown conditions.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what federal services locally have been impacted. Calls to spokespeople for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forest have been met with messages stating that no one is available to take calls or respond to voicemails while the shutdown is in effect.
Staff members working for Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, released a document last week listing the national effects of the shutdown.
Leahy claims 450,000 federal employees are working without pay. Among them are 41,000 law enforcement officers, 54,000 customs and border protection officers, 42,000 Coast Guard employees, 6,503 people in the State Department, 35,000 in the Internal Revenue Service, and a little more than half of the employees in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Leahy’s staff said 380,000 federal workers are on furlough, among them 60 percent of the Department of Commerce, 96 percent of staff at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 80 percent of the National Park Service, and 43 percent of the Forest Service.
The “Heart of Vermont” is growing.
A new collaborative initiative by Rutland City Rotary, Green Mountain College, University of Vermont Extension Program, Come Alive Outside, College of St. Joseph, Rutland County Schools and the Vermont Farmer’s Food Center is striving to re-localize and revitalize Rutland’s economy, not by inviting in larger businesses, but strengthening the soul of its heartland.
Now, thanks to a new grant issued by the James T. Bowse Health Trust, Rutland Regional Medical Center, Mill River Unified Union School District and the VFFC will each be launching new health-centered programs in the coming year.
MRUUSD will launch their Engage! program to help keep students in grades five through eight engaged with learning even after the bell rings, by providing them with educational opportunities in conjunction with the Wonderfeet Kids Museum, College of St. Joseph, the MINT Maker Space, Vermont State Parks, and Vermont Fish and Wildlife.
The Community Health Centers of the Rutland Region, Rutland Mental Health, and Rutland Regional Medical Center are utilizing their share of the money to collaborate with the Center for Health and Learning and host Suicide Safe Care training courses to teach more teams of health, mental health and social service providers the “Zero Suicide” techniques to better protect those at risk in Rutland County. The goal of the Center for Health and Learning is to reduce barriers to mental health services and to decrease the deaths by suicide in Rutland County.
Each of the grant-funded projects is eligible for three years of additional funding thanks to an additional $269,994 added to the grant this round, bringing the Trust’s total contribution to over $4 million toward community health since its inception in 1996, according to a release from Rutland Regional Medical Center.
A total of $80,000 is going to the Vermont Farmer’s Food Center, according to VFFC President and local farmer Greg Cox, to fund studies on the viability of a plan to transform two buildings next to the VFFC into a food preservation and distribution center and a culinary educational center, to train and educate Rutland’s working hands and put this part of Vermont back on the map.
“We used to ship turkey, wool, lamb, dairy, down to New York City and Boston,” Cox said. “That was a substantial part of our economy back then, and economies are built on imports and exports. Rutland is struggling: we’re going to reestablish those markets.”
The grant is matched by an “in-kind” grant of $27,000 in work by college students to help with surveys and pro-bono work Cox said is being done by local building and development professionals.
Altogether, with the “in-kind” contribution, that’s about $100,000 in the VFFC’s budget to fund efforts to put Rutland back on the national economic map. Cox said the VFFC finally received the grant after applying last spring.
The VFFC’s goal is to create a new brand for Rutland called “Heart of Vermont,” and market the Vermont brand in larger cities by creating new educational and career-training centers to process, manufacture and export Vermont goods.
“It’s basically a three-part planning grant,” Cox said. “We start with doing an economic analysis of agriculture in Rutland, southern Addison and Bennington counties.”
Cox said the VFFC has hired economist Ken Meter, of Crossroads Resource Council in Minnesota, who will be traveling to Vermont in the early months of the new year to conduct assessments and identify potential markets for the “Heart of Vermont” brand.
After Meter’s assessment, the VFFC will utilize students at Green Mountain College and other schools to help process business surveys and identify farms, which will help to develop stages two and three of the overarching project: establishing an export of Vermont-produced items to sell out of state from a building planned for renovations in the back of the VFFC, and a culinary education program to be situated in the building adjacent to the VFFC.
“We’d know what kind of equipment to buy, and that gives us the capacity to grow food-based businesses,” Cox said.
The VFFC is looking to partner with Salvation Farms and BROC Community Action of Southwest Vermont to incorporate workforce development and career training, so that a meat and value-added product production facility can serve as a learning kitchen and USDA-certified product export facility for Vermont-raised meat, dairy and other products.
“Then, you’re more employable for a food-based job,” Cox said. “Rutland County has a population of 57,000 people. What we’re doing is very feasible, we just don’t currently see agriculture as an industry.”
Castleton Crackers and Vermont Bean Crafters are two examples of Rutland County businesses that left to root in other communities, an exodus that the VFFC and their partners want to prevent in the future by creating a viable and thriving workforce from the inside out.
“If we can’t provide the infrastructure for a business to grow, they’ll leave,” Cox said. “We need to figure out how to put this on the fast track. We won’t put anything at risk … this is how we bring Rutland back.”